The M-BASE Collective, when it first emerged in the ‘80s, championed a style that was about rhythmic unpredictability that was nevertheless mathematical in its precision, and a new way of looking at harmony that differentiated it from the post bop language of the young lions of the time. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico has the advantage of having worked seriously in both camps, and with his latest live release, Live at Jazz Standard he continues to straddle the line, although he clearly tends to lean towards the M-BASE side. The result is a mixed programme; while the talents of the members of Plaxico’s group are never in question, the overall set is something of a barrage on the senses; exciting to be sure, but tiring after repeated listens.
It would have been captivating to have been in the audience on January 29, 2003, when this recording was made at New York’s Jazz Standard club. Plaxico, who alternates between acoustic and electric bass, and drummer Lionel Cordew presents a rhythm section that is complex and energetic. But that is, perhaps, the problem with the group’s approach. The rhythm section is so frenetic at times that while there is a certain gut-level excitement in hearing them navigate such difficult passages with ease, one is sometimes more impressed by how well they play, and less than taken at what they play.
Thankfully there are moments of respite. Following the set openers, an M-BASE meets Lee Morgan version of “The Sidewinder” and Plaxico’s “Jumping Jacks,” Plaxico takes it down about fifty notches for a straightforward reading of the Cahn/Chaplin standard, “Dedicated to You.” And while there is a funky vamp section in the group’s radically reharmonized version of “Summertime,” it is more relaxed, giving the listener a chance to catch breath. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is also given a faithful rendition.
The rest of the set runs at an energetic pace. Plaxico’s “A Shorter Take” is a clever homage, inspired by Shorter’s sadly overlooked album Atlantis. “Along Came Benny” references Benny Golson’s “Along came Betty.” “Cachao’s Dance” manages to blend Cuban rhythms with the more logical exactness of Plaxico’s and Cordew’s approach while “Senor Silver” pays tribute the Horace Silver in a frantic funk that, frankly, owes little to its source.
The players are exceptional; saxophonist Marcus Strickland, at twenty-four, demonstrates a maturity beyond his years, as does trumpeter Alexander Norris; pianist Marin Bejerano manages to navigate the complicated changes with confidence; Cordew is, quite simply, a powerhouse of polyrhythms; only Kahil Kwame Bell is superfluous—the proceedings are busy enough without the added percussion.
But as high quality as the performances are, once one gets past the immediate excitement, one is left feeling strangely empty. Live at Jazz Standard shows that great playing is not enough; there has to be a connection to give a recording lasting value and, sadly, there is little to connect with on this date.
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